sidebar menu icon


CIVIL ENGINEERING. Civil engineers design and construct the elements of societal "infrastructure": facilities and systems related to water supply and treatment, sewage, and the protection of the environment; transportation systems; residential, commercial, manufacturing, and industrial structures; flood-control and other hydraulic projects; and projects made possible by geotechnical engineering. Since the turn of the century civil engineering has made remarkable contributions in Texas that have resulted in the enhanced protection of human health and wellbeing. In recent decades civil engineers have adopted advanced technologies in the area of information systems, automation, and telecommunications to improve the planning, design, construction, maintenance, and operation of infrastructure systems and in so doing to achieve cost savings and improved productivity. More such changes lie ahead.

Environmental Engineering. Every civilization in history has been located near an abundant fresh-water supply, for adequate potable water is essential for the development of any aggregation of human beings. A privately owned water-distribution system from wells was started in San Antonio in 1866, whereas large cities now operate public systems. Most of these depend on surface water impounded by dams, themselves designed and executed by civil engineers. People and industries have come to take water for granted and consider it an unlimited and free resource that should be delivered at minimal cost. But water supply may control the limits of industry in Texas. The estimated available surface and ground water supplies in Texas are estimated to be about 25 million acre-feet. Projected demands range from about 17 million to over 25 million acre-feet in the year 2000 and from 22 million to 30 million acre-feet in the year 2030. Estimated shortages range from 400,000 acre-feet (130 billion gallons) per year in 2000 up to about 5 million acre-feet (over 1.6 trillion gallons) in 2030. Of the total annual predicted water use in Texas in 2000 (25 million acre-feet, or 8.2 trillion gallons), drinking water represents more than 20 percent, irrigation and water for livestock account for about 63 percent, and industrial and manufacturing use constitute about 10 percent. Of the projected water use in 2030 (30 million acre-feet, or 9.8 trillion gallons) municipal use constitutes about 27 percent, industrial and manufacturing use about 18 percent, and irrigation about 50 percent. Development of such water supplies will require civil engineers to design and construct forty-one new dams and reservoirs to increase the safe yield of surface-water supplies. In addition, twenty-eight major pumping and conveyance facilities will be constructed to divert surface-water supplies from river basins in the state to the urban-industrial complexes by the year 2005. Civil engineers will also be called to dams, pipelines, distribution conduits, wastewater-collection systems, and other facilities to repair, replace, extend, and maintain the water in these areas.

Sanitary sewer construction was started in Dallas in 1881. Now, in almost every city in Texas, civil (environmental) engineers have designed and constructed municipal wastewater systems to transport wastewater to biological wastewater-treatment facilities. Approximately 60 to 70 percent of the water used for municipal purposes is returned as wastewater. New or upgraded facilities are required to be in compliance with the Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972 and subsequent years. In the future, environmental engineers will be called on to design more efficient treatment facilities to enhance maximum recycling and reuse. Improved facilities have also resulted in the production of more sludges and biosolids. The amount of sludge generated by a city of 10,000 people is about a ton of dry solids or about 1,000 gallons of liquid sludge a day. Environmental engineers have designed facilities to convert sludge to beneficial biosolids through composting, and to energy through biodegradation in anaerobic digestion or incineration. The development of other innovative and cost-effective technologies offers opportunities for civil engineers to convert these wastes into usable resources. Liquid sludge has been mixed with clay to make bricks, for instance; organic solids burn in the kiln and reduce the requirement for auxiliary fuel.

Civil engineers have designed and constructed facilities for the treatment and disposal of municipal refuse, municipal and industrial sludges, industrial solid wastes and hazardous wastes. Protection of the health and safety of the public and maintenance of the quality of the environment are added challenges. The land has been the principal receptacle of these waste materials. Leachates from many waste disposal sites have flowed into usable groundwater supplies and polluted them. The volume and tonnage of municipal refuse and wastewater treatment plant sludges pose continued challenges to the civil engineer. Municipal refuse exceeds more than one ton per person annually. Available land for refuse disposal in sanitary landfills in the proximity of the urban-industrial centers is rapidly disappearing. Therefore, environmental engineers will have to develop further innovative, efficient technologies for the conversion of refuse to energy and for the reclamation of recyclable and reusable constituents of refuse. Environmental engineers have developed different technologies to treat contaminants in hazardous wastes by in situ bioremediation and restored the quality of water in contaminated aquifers. Hazardous wastes often pose potential health and environmental problems. Many exhibit possible carcinogenic, mutagenic, or other adverse properties. It falls within the purview of civil engineering to design and construct proper facilities to minimize contamination of surface and underground water and, in general, protect the environment. Environmental engineers will continue to address the protection of water resources, control of pollution, and disposal of hazardous wastes as well as the design and construction of facilities to provide safe drinking water and a clean environment. See also BOARD OF WATER ENGINEERS and relevant articles beginning with WATER, and TEXAS WATER.

Transportation Engineering. Harbor, railroad, highway, and airport development depends upon civil engineering. Before 1851 transportation in Texas was confined to boat traffic along the coast and the lower reaches of a few rivers or to animal-drawn vehicles on the few and primitive roads to the interior (see RIVER NAVIGATION). As railroads developed, river transportation declined, but the Gulf ports were built up. All the thirteen deepwater ports in Texas today have artificial harbors dredged in relatively shallow areas. The port of Houston is fifty miles from deep water and was made possible in 1925 by dredging of the Houston Ship Channel. The second railroad west of the Mississippi River, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway, was in Texas. The twenty miles running west from Harrisburg were begun in 1851 and put into service in 1853. By 1862 engineers had built some 492 miles of track, largely in the Gulf Coast area. Stimulated by grants of state land, a new era of railroad construction began about 1870, reaching a peak of 1,669 miles built in the year 1881 and 1,096 miles in 1882, at which time grants ceased. The 17,078 miles of track in Texas in 1932 declined to 15,586 miles by 1949, when several branch lines were abandoned because of highway competition.

Highways had a humble beginning. An early specification of the Republic of Texas called for a road thirty feet wide with tree stumps not to exceed twelve inches high. Under state law counties were responsible for all early highway work, but they naturally built more local roads than highways. In cities pavements were gradually introduced: creosoted wood blocks in 1875, asphalt in 1897, brick in 1899, concrete about 1910. But most pavements were limited to city streets or highways near large cities until the Highway Department was established in 1917 (see STATE DEPARTMENT OF HIGHWAYS AND PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION). By 1950 the department had developed 33,648 miles of paved highways. In 1945 the department began the construction of farm-to-market roads, and the building of expressways within all the larger cities began in 1949 (see HIGHWAY DEVELOPMENT). By 1970–80, Texas had the largest mileage of interstate highways in the United States and had a total highway system second to none in the nation. Approximately 70,000 miles of highway, the backbone of the state's transportation system, provided good access to markets and facilitated technical growth.

Aviation has also reaped the rewards of civil engineering. All major cities and many smaller towns in Texas have airports. In 1972, the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airportqv was the largest airport in the world. Though no longer the biggest, it has been expanded many times since then and serves as a major hub for air travel all over the world. Houston Intercontinental Airport is a major international hub and has fueled the industrial development of the state. Air traffic continues to grow in Austin, San Antonio, and other population centers. Texas is also the home of two major air carriers. American Airlines, one of the largest air carriers in the world is owned by AMR Corporation and headquartered in Fort Worth. Southwest Airlines has offices in Dallas. As a result of its innovative pricing structure, faster handling methods, and speedy turnaround of planes, Southwest has changed the face of the airline industry. Many low-cost carriers have developed nationwide, but none has been as successful as Southwest Airlines, which now serves both the east and west coasts.

Structural Engineering. Railroads and highways also need bridges, which are a product of structural engineering. The first bridge across the Brazos, the Waco Suspension Bridge, used Roebling wire rope, iron from New Jersey, and three million locally produced bricks. It was completed in 1870. Subsequently, John A. Roebling used similar cable for the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. The Houston Street viaduct (Dallas, 1911) and Paddock viaduct (Fort Worth, 1914) served as prototypes for similar concrete arch viaducts across the growing western United States. Other notable bridges are the Rainbow Bridge at Port Arthur and the Pecos High Bridge, a railroad bridge. Before 1940, Texas bridges for rail and for highways were reliable adaptations of forms and styles developed in the Midwest and Atlantic coastal states. After 1950 the Texas Highway Department achieved national recognition for applications with composite steel-concrete girders, prestressed concrete, expressway-interchange structures, and segmental construction of bridges. Research facilities at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University contributed to the success of these innovative bridge systems. Noteworthy steel bridges in Texas include bridges across the ship channels in Corpus Christi and Beaumont, the bridge over the Colorado River on the Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360) in Austin, and a bridge across the Devils River canyon, which appeared to be much deeper before Amistad Reservoir was impounded. Ferguson Structural Engineering Laboratory of the University of Texas at Austin gained international recognition during the latter decades of the twentieth century. The company began activities in 1960 and took its current name in 1980. Research at the Ferguson Laboratory involves studies of the design, construction, and repair of bridges, buildings, and special-purpose structures. Laboratory facilities include a three-dimensional structural test facility, fatigue-testing capabilities that have been expanded with the procurement of new computer-based data systems and unique cable-test equipment, and advances in structural materials. At the lab, full-size components can be tested under random amplitude and frequency to simulate actual service conditions. Advanced stress-analyzing techniques such as stress analysis with computer-controlled thermal imaging and three-dimensional nonlinear finite element analysis are utilized to evaluate specimen behavior. Approximately two-thirds of the research conducted at Ferguson Laboratory is related to bridge structures. In 1995 the faculty of Ferguson Laboratory served code and specification authorities for steel, concrete, timber, masonry, and bridge structures, and its graduates held prominent industrial and faculty positions throughout the world.

The growth of Texas cities encouraged structural engineers to produce many tall buildings and brought about the growth of internationally prominent structural-design firms. Notable buildings of reinforced concrete include the Medical Arts Building (Dallas 1909), the Mills Building (El Paso, 1915), the Gulf Buildingqv (Houston 1929), and One Shell Plaza (Houston 1969). Each of these was one of the tallest buildings ever constructed at the time of its completion. Design firms from Houston (e.g., CBM, Incorporated, and Walter P. Moore, Incorporated) and Dallas (e.g., Ellisor and Tanner, Incorporated, and Datum, Incorporated) helped change urban skylines in Texas, other states, and other countries. Other unique tall structures include the San Jacinto Monumentqv (1937) and the Hemisfair '68 Tower in San Antonio (1966).

Texas structural engineers and petrochemical companies have also made major contributions to the offshore oil industry. Indeed, the earliest offshore platforms for radar installations in World War II were known as "Texas towers." Research and engineering design for ocean structures has been managed by large corporations with headquarters in Texas. Some of the largest such structures were built in the Gulf of Mexico.

Open spaces and the need for rapid transport have prompted Texas to become a leader in aircraft design and manufacture, another area in which structural engineering is practiced. The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center near Houston has been the source for development and application of structural plastics and very lightweight structural systems.

Hydraulic Engineering. Since Texas rivers have high flood flows, floods are a major problem (see WEATHER). More than 100 levee districts have been formed, and many miles of levees have been built. A levee system combined with river-channel improvement has reclaimed a large industrial area near the middle of Dallas. Many combined flood-control and power dams have been built. Olmos Reservoir at San Antonio, built solely for flood protection, avoids all long-time storage. The first large reservoir constructed in Texas was a dam for power on the Colorado River at Austin in 1890. This dam failed in the flood of 1900 and was later rebuilt. The Medina River Dam for irrigation followed in 1912. By 1950 almost every major Texas river had at least one dam. In 1949 the total reservoir capacity was nearly three times that of ten years earlier; dams under construction subsequently increased the capacity another 80 percent. The Lower Colorado River Authority, established in 1934, developed a unified power and flood-control program originally utilizing four, and later six, dams. When built, Mansfield Dam (at Lake Travis), 270 feet high, was the fourth largest masonry structure in the world. The Brazos River Authority has brought about similar control for the Brazos River. Denison Dam on the Red River impounds the huge Lake Texoma.

A notable early hydraulic problem was the protection of Galveston after the catastrophic Galveston hurricane of 1900. Structural engineers directed the building of a massive seawall and the raising of most of the city from three to ten feet by a giant earth-filling job that cost nearly twice as much as the wall.

Geotechnical Engineering. The development of theories, field equipment, and laboratory devices to characterize soils and rocks for the design and construction of foundations, embankments, pavements, and retaining structures began before 1925, when Austrian Karl Terzaghi's Erdbaumechanik was published. The book, along with technical articles in engineering journals, stimulated great interest and a burst of activity. The author traveled from Austria to the United States and lectured at various universities, including the University of Texas, in the summer of 1941. The development of geotechnical engineering, called soil mechanics and foundation engineering at first, began in Texas in earnest in the early 1930s, when Professor Raymond F. Dawson joined the University of Texas, and in 1942, when Professor Spencer J. Buchanan joined Texas A&M University. Soil-mechanics laboratories were established at the universities, and instruction began for both undergraduate and graduate students. Dawson established the Texas Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering. The first conference was in 1938. The eighth, in 1956, was the final one because the American Society of Civil Engineers had begun a division to serve geotechnical engineers in the United States. At the last Texas conference, which had the theme of geotechnical engineering for offshore structures, the proceedings included papers by Terzaghi and other notable authors, including Bramlette McClelland, who established the first major firm in Texas aimed exclusively at the practice of geotechnical engineering. McClelland's firm developed innovative techniques for the sampling of offshore soils and did research that led to improvements in the design of pile foundations. Many firms now are engaged in the practice of geotechnical engineering, several in each of the major cities in Texas. Undergraduate and graduate instruction is offered by several colleges of engineering in Texas, and research is conducted by faculty and students at these universities as well as at private and governmental agencies. The firms and agencies in the practice of geotechnical engineering are making use of steady advancements from research and are using modern methods in the development of facilities for transportation, water supply and treatment, industrial plants, the central city, and private dwellings. Geotechnical engineers have been active participants in the design and construction that has characterized the recent industrial growth in Texas and are contributing significantly to improvements in the environment.

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to:

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, "Civil Engineering," accessed October 20, 2017,

Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.